'So Spain go through', uttered Gary Lineker after the English coverage of the game – which is not a phrase we were expecting to hear in this tournament, with its implication that the contrary, for 87 minutes, was actually a possibility. I prefer the tabloid Marca's headline 'Sufrimos como nunca, ganamos como siempre' (we suffered more than usual, but we won just like always).
That just about sums up a game in which Spain were slightly off the pace, slightly more inaccurate than usual in the final third, but one in which they nevertheless enjoyed 72% of the possession. Croatia played well, which was part of the reason for Spain's suffering, but you could also argue that Croatia took too long to revert to a more open shape, one which was necessary in the end because only a win was going to take them through. They had carved out a couple of excellent openings in the second half, one of which should have seen them take the lead, when, with the Spanish caught napping by a Modric-inspired counter, Rakitic should really have scored. On such gossamer threads is destiny decided. Casillas got behind the header, and Spain breathed again.
Almost by reaction, Vicente del Bosque brought on Sevilla's Jesus Navas for Fernando Torres and attempted to open the Croatia defence by offering more width, although it seemed slightly odd to take Torres off at that point, since he was surely the intended recipient of Navas' service. But the moustachioed one moves in mysterious ways these days, and it is true that Torres had become less significant a presence in the second half, after a few muscle-bound breaks in the first half.
The trouble with Torres, to get behind his manager's thinking, is that he takes too long to decide what he's going to do. If he is put clear by a vertical pass, he is swift and decisive. But if he receives the ball in a deeper position, it's remarkable how many times he loses the ball, or simply hesitates before making the wrong decision. No other Spanish player does this. It is perhaps less evident in the bash and dash of the English Premier League, but here there is a strong case for playing Cesc Fabregas in a position akin to Torres, as a 'reference' at the very least. Cesc almost invariably makes the right decisions – a feature that has characterised his play since he first burst onto the scene with Arsenal. Indeed, his stop and chip to Iniesta was the pass that finally won the game.
Spain were perhaps just a little too relaxed in their possession game in the first half, as if by simply possessing the ball the chances would come. They didn't, and the style began to resemble the dark side of tiki-taka, practised at times by Barcelona this season, in which possession becomes a sort of parody of itself, and loses any meaning. Croatia were not unduly bothered, playing their two wingers as extra full-backs, smothering Spain's attempts to pass their way through the massed ranks. In such circumstances, you have to be terribly accurate, and Spain sometimes are not. Andres Iniesta looked as though he was missing Leo Messi, and even Xabi Alonso was failing with the longer ground-hogging penetrative passes in which he specialises. In short, it was a slightly worrying scenario, given that Italy were winning, Ireland were unlikely to score (although they almost did), and a single goal from Croatia would have bundled the champions out of the competition.
Croatia seem too good a side to go out of the tournament at this stage, but such is the nature of the Euros. It's a tighter competition than the World Cup, with less margin of error. Tell Russia and Netherlands about it. As such, perhaps we shouldn't read too much into Spain's apparently inconsistent start, with only their display against the limited Irish a wholly convincing one. Then again, Spain's next opponents (and it could easily be an interesting meeting with England) will have been encouraged by signs of disorganisation in the defensive ranks.
Alvaro Arbeloa didn't have a great game, either defensively or offensively, and will find it hard to watch the replay of Ratikic's free header, in the space where the full-back should have been. Jordi Alba, up to now Spain's revelation, was also caught horribly napping by the wonderful Luka Modric (how long before he is prised away to La Liga?) and was guilty of being caught in no-man's land on more than one occasion. Sergio Ramos, who for some reason known only to himself announced on Twitter at the weekend that Spain had beaten Ireland 4-1, nevertheless played well, but sometimes Gerard Pique is caught out positionally, and you get the feeling that nobody is taking responsibility for shouting out the orders, and organising the back line enough – a problem usually absent when Carles Puyol is around.
Sevilla's Alvaro Negredo got his first run-out, late on in the game – his physical presence intended to add a further dimension to the attack, but it was too late for him to feel that he really contributed. Athletic's Fernando Llorente remains the permanent bum on the bench, although the debate that has opened up on the streets of Spain regarding the striker's position seems a curious one to me. Spain's strength lies in the infinite possibilities that the flexibility of their squad gives them. Croatia struck me as a strong side in the air, who might not have been bothered by a small change of tack from Spain, namely replacing Torres with an even bigger but less mobile striker. Jesus Navas and Fabregas did change things up sufficiently to make a difference, and both were instrumental in the goal. It's all a question of movement, and how long the opposition can really afford to play so many at the back. Indeed, as soon as Croatia realised that time was running out on them, they pushed their two midfielders forward and took a risk, but it only resulted in the slippery Iniesta stealing a yard on a defence that for once was not so deep-lying. Spain's pale hero did not need asking twice, controlling the ball with his chest and squaring to the unmarked Navas, who belted it into the empty net.
After the game, Croatia's manager Slaven Bilic complained about the two possible (for him dead-cert) penalties, one where Ramos seemed to take out Mandzukic in the first half, and the rather more blatant foul by Sergio Busquests on Vedran Corluka late on – committed cleverly by the Barcelona midfielder amidst a sea of shirts. He also offered the view that Spain lacked aggression and perhaps the desire to make it to the final – saying that there were 'other teams' (without naming them) who were more up for it. This was given short shrift by the Spanish press on Tuesday morning, who pointed out that the Croatians picked up all the game's yellow cards and employed some fairly hard-man tactics in the first-half, under the confused gaze of the indecisive Wolfgang Stark, once again voted by German players this season as the worst referee in the Bundesliga. Wakey wakey UEFA!
The game had been preceded by the ridiculous issue of the possibility that Spain and Croatia might enter into a pact for a draw, speculation that was laughed off by the Spanish press and the players – feeling in a superior moral mood to the whining Italians who saw no irony in declaring that they trusted the 'honour of the Spanish'. Perhaps I was not alone in finding such sentiments slightly out of kilter from a squad with several players still under police investigation for the possible fixing of matches. Innocent until proven guilty, of course – but you think that it might at least have shamed them into shutting up.
In conclusion, Spain are fallible, but we knew that anyway. They will have been worried by their own lack of penetration in the first half and by the clarity of the chances carved out by Croatia, but grinding out a victory in such circumstances can also be viewed as a glass half-full. It seems that the tournament is basing itself on how to stop the Spanish playing, how to reveal the cracks in their armoury. Well of course they have them. They may run out of steam this time, but the fact that we still haven't seen Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla or Fernando Llorente should be food for thought for those who think they have Spain's measure.